The Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2011 in Nigeria (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15821 ), if it becomes law, will make life even more unpleasant for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, who already face tough legal penalties, for their friends and for supporters of universal human rights.
Couples who celebrate their partnership could each face up to 14 years in prison, while witnesses could be jailed for 10 years. The "public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly" would also carry a 10-year penalty.
Not surprisingly, there has been dismay among supporters of justice for all, in Nigeria and internationally.
Many of the reasons given by champions of the bill are evidently flawed. For a start, no law is needed to prohibit a practice that is already unlawful. In any case, claims that criminalising same-sex partnership is essential to ensure that the population does not die out, protect national culture and safeguard morality have little credibility.
In countries where gays are not persecuted, and indeed even where the law allows same-sex marriage, the majority of people continue to enter into heterosexual marriage and have children. Individuals’ sexual orientation seldom changes, so increased social acceptance of LGBT people has little impact on numbers, though it does mean that there is less need to hide one’s identity. In any case, some lesbians and gays become parents.
Countries where same-sex marriage is recognised by law remain culturally distinct. Someone visiting South Africa is hardly likely to think they are in Iceland or Argentina.
Nor are countries where equal marriage is practised exceptionally immoral. People are far less likely to be murdered in the Netherlands, where the homicide rate per 100,000 population was 1.4 in 2004, than in Nigeria, where the rate was 17.7. With regard to religious values, in the words of 1 John 2.9, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother or sister is still in darkness.”
In reality, if this bill becomes law, it will do nothing to eradicate Nigeria’s real problems such as poverty and lack of infrastructure. Indeed it will worsen some of these problems.
It will make combating HIV even harder, as gays are driven underground and deterred from seeking medical advice and help. This exposes them, and others, to danger.
Talented LGBT people will in many cases be driven away, or left despondent and unable to use their gifts for the nation’s benefit. Academic and artistic freedom will be stifled as educationists, researchers and writers try to avoid being accused of indirectly showing same-sex relationships. Extortionists will be given even more opportunities to squeeze money out of their victims, while malicious people will be able to make life difficult for business rivals or personal enemies by making false accusations.
Nigeria’s international image as a modern African nation and leading regional player will be tarnished. A repressive and outmoded colonial-era law, instead of being ditched, is being reinforced.
"Such elements in society should be killed," said one opposition MP during the debate – but this bill offers an ideal opportunity to criminalise opponents of the ruling party. As has happened in other parts of the world, politicians and activists who challenge the government may sooner or later be denounced as gay, and face investigation, perhaps even imprisonment. And, by encroaching on freedom of speech and assembly on such a flimsy pretext, lawmakers would set a dangerous precedent.
It is to be hoped that the bill will be halted, so that such damage can be avoided.
Victimising minorities is a common practice across the world. It may temporarily divert people from difficult social and economic problems, and offer a sense of relief as scorn and hatred are directed towards a target. Ethnic and religious minorities, disabled people, those with different cultures and customs are all too often made scapegoats for societies’ ills. It is profoundly unjust and ultimately unsatisfactory.
(c) Savitri Hensman is a Christian commentator and Ekklesia associate.